Posted on June 19, 2012 by Mike Means

This article was previous published in The Journal Record on June 7, 2012.

By Kirby Davis

TULSA - Louis Bolack enjoys rattling off the advantages of concrete homes over traditional wood.

"You can feel the difference," he said. "There's a 55-percent reduction in sound in an ICF (insulated concrete forms) home. When you close the door, you can't hear anything from the street."

Such homes can deliver a 35-percent to 40-percent annual reduction in utility costs, said the Oklahoma distributor for Greenline Insulated Forms, and save residents from most allergy, dust, rodent or insect problems. Bolack claimed that these ICF homes, consisting of manufactured wall components with a concrete center poured on site, promised far lower maintenance costs while being so easy to build that a consumer off the street can handle most of the work himself.

"I'll have you trained in two hours," said Bolack. "You'll be an expert in eight hours."

Perhaps most important of all to a native of tornado alley, Bolack said the secure homes provide far greater protection from storms or wildfires. He loves to pull out disaster pictures demonstrating their survival when all around them was gone, and tell of insurance savings these homeowners may earn.

"These homes should last 200 to 500 years," he said. "From an economic point of view, these homes make sense to build and then on top of that, you've got the safety factor. They don't blow away. They don't blow down."

But when it comes to Oklahoma home construction and sales, concrete presents no challenge to traditional wood and brick. While Bolack quotes national statistics that ICF claims 12 percent of all new home construction, such regional giants as Simmons Homes of Owasso and Ideal Homes of Norman have not built one concrete home for years, if ever.

Mike Hancock, a licensed engineer with Basement Contractors of Edmond and a board member of the Concrete Foundation Association, estimates that less than 100 concrete homes are built in Oklahoma each year.

"It's kind of got to be something where the person says, I want this,' and they have to find someone to do it," said Steve Barnes, a retired Florida transplant who's building his third concrete home, this one in Broken Arrow.

A number of issues factor into this quandary, starting with the bottom line.

"It's a huge cost issue," said Todd Booze, vice president and secretary of the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association. "That's probably the primary determinant why it's not in residential construction."

That factor may be shrinking. Hancock said concrete homes historically averaged about 2 percent more than the cost of traditional construction, depending on the foundation chosen. While concrete costs have not gone down over the last decade, he noted that wood, steel and other traditional expenses have risen. Bolack added that improved manufacturing techniques have lowered ICF systems.

The concrete home sector actually offers a number of manufacturing systems, most as connectable walls or building blocks. Many require that concrete be poured into these forms at the construction site, although some companies, like Tulsa DynaSpan, manufacture and ship precast concrete walls. That company, normally a supplier to commercial and industrial users, has just delivered a set of walls for a 9,000-square-foot, $2.5 million residence under construction in Broken Arrow.

"When you're dealing with concrete, I think a lot of that can be done at a smaller scale," said W Design owner and lead architect Weldon Bowman, designer of that Broken Arrow mansion. "It can be done economically."

But Booze, president of construction at Ideal Homes, said most such Oklahoma demand comes from mansions, where the owner can afford to pay for it.

"It's too bad that we can't affordably do it all the time," said Greg Simmons, owner of Simmons Homes. "The payback's just too long."

Although it's been years since he priced concrete, Simmons estimated their construction cost at $25 to $40 more per linear foot than traditional wood homes. Hancock said that fell right in the ballpark.

Tulsa DynaSpan does not expect its first residence to open a new revenue stream for the company, primarily due to the cost of transporting those large and heavy precast walls.

"It's not a very economical way to build a home," said Morgan Wulf, head of business development for Tulsa DynaSpan. "It's going to be more expensive than your standard stick house."

Bolack believes the ICF systems prove far more cost-effective, especially as the owner recovers operational savings. But he admits having difficulties getting potential buyers to commit, having just a 10-percent to 15-percent conversion rate. With $200,000 in sales last year, he made his goal. But he finished the last quarter 50 to 75 percent below where he felt he should be.

"This does not move fast," he said of ICF sales. "I've talked to a lot of people at the home show every year. Last year everybody said they were going to build in a year or two or three. This year they've said they're going to do something this year, but we'll see."

No matter how efficient the manufacturers get, Hancock doubted it would ever counteract concrete's base cost.

"Concrete just flat costs more than wood," he said.

Appraisals also present a key stumbling block. With so few concrete homes in use, appraisers have few standards to judge them against.

"There's nobody that's going to give you the value on that so that you can get a mortgage on it," Hancock said, echoing Booze. "You're not going to get the benefit of it, the appraisal benefit of it, for being energy-efficient or even for being green."

But the biggest bottom-line factor may reflect performance. Booze said a wood-frame home can deliver nearly all the advantages of a concrete home if it's built tight enough, and at a lower cost. Outside of the thermal factors, Hancock agreed.

"A lot of your leakage comes through walls and windows and your ceiling," Booze said. "All the penetrations you have in your ceiling are still there, and a concrete home doesn't address that."

The only consumer demand Booze and Simmons hear involves safe rooms, which they meet using steel products bolted to the foundation.

"Just because you have concrete walls, you're going to have windows, you're going to have a roof that's not concrete," said Booze. "Your concrete walls may still be standing, but you're still not going to be that secure. You still got to have a safe room."

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